Raising awareness & lobbying for safer wireless technology

Speech – Sue Kedgley

Cell Tower public meeting – Pakuranga

10 June 2009

Every other week I am contacted by communities around New Zealand that have suddenly discovered a cell tower or some other telecommunications equipment (or EMR emitter, as it is known in the trade) is about to be installed next to their homes, their pre-schools or schools, without any prior knowledge or consent.

The Atawhai Playcentre in Nelson discovered by accident one day that a 22metre celltower was about to be built right next to their playcentre and another childcare centre.  No one had bothered to tell them.  Residents in Titahi Bay Wellington woke up one day to discover that construction had begun on a 12metre cell tower in the middle of a residential area.  The same thing happened to Kapiti residents a few weeks ago.  It’s been happening in your community, and all around New Zealand, and communities are fighting it neighbourhood by neighbourhood, street by street.  Just as you are here today.

A few weeks ago I was contacted by elderly residents who live in a Metlifecare retirement village at Green Bay in Auckland.  They discovered that three cell towers had been erected on top of the apartments without their knowledge or consent.  Indeed Telecom staff and staff who worked in the village were under strict orders to tell residents that it was air-conditioning units not cell towers, that were being constructed on their roof!

The clandestine erection of cell towers all over New Zealand is a new phenomenon, sparked by two and now three mobile operators scrambling to establish competing telecommunications networks in New Zealand.  But it has also been sparked by the progressive liberalising of the laws and regulations around the construction of telecommunications equipment in New Zealand.

In the 90’s, telecommunications companies had to apply for resource consent, and most were publicly notified.  I remember being a Commissioner on a hearing for a cell tower to be erected on a church in Ngaio Wellington.  The whole community protested, and there were several days of hearings, and Telecom brought what it said was an independent expert witness, Dr David Black, to assure commissioners and the public that cell towers were absolutely and completely safe.  I grilled Dr Black about his credentials and he was forced to admit that far from being independent, he worked as a consultant for Vodafone and Telecom most of the time.  Despite this, the same Dr David Black has been wheeled out as a so-called independent expert witness in just about every hearing and every dispute about cell towers in New Zealand to assure everyone that cell towers are safe.  He is also an influential member on the government’s Inter-Agency committee that monitors whether electromagnetic radiation (EMR) is safe.

Frustrated by the time and expense of these public hearings, telcos lobbied the government to enable them to install telecommunications infrastructure around New Zealand as of right.

The 2001 Telecommunications Act was the first step.  It stipulated that if a telecommunications structure is erected on a designated site then telcos don’t have to seek permission for construction – it is a permitted activity.  Telcos then went round making submissions to Councils to get designated land in their district plans.  It also allowed telcos to install masts, antennas and cabinets on road reserve land.

Then, to make it even easier to roll out their networks, telcos persuaded the Labour government to pass the so-called National Environmental Standard – a standard drawn up by the telco industry, rubber stamped by Labour Minister Trevor Mallard  -which allows telcos to install their structures (EMR emitters) masts, micro-cellular transmitters for example- on any existing power pole or street light on road reserve (that is on the side verges of roads) as of right – as a permitted activity, so that they would not need to inform or consult with local communities even if the structure was to be located right outside a person’s home.

The Green party vigorously campaigned against this proposed outrageous standard, and constructed a mini cell tower in Wellington, but we could get little media or public interest in our campaign and so the new standard went through Parliament with the support of National and Labour and came into force last year.

As a result of the new standard, there has been a proliferation of hundreds, possibly thousands, of new masts and microwave micro cellular transmitters all over New Zealand, and more powerful transmitters have been added to the existing 2600 older sites.  The new 3G technology requires a more intensive network which requires cell towers every 800 metres, and so cell towers have been constructed all over New Zeaaland for this purpose.

Vodafone has completed its 3G network, and I am told that Telecom has recently switched on its 3G network in Auckland.  And of course we have a third operator rolling out hundreds of new emitters around NZ ahead of its launch later this year.  It said it needed to build a further 1320 new cell towers in NZ for its new network.  And all of these EMR emitters– even if they are a lamppost – can emit EMR to be the same high level as the NZ standard.

Then we have yet another technology – Telstra – operated by Kordia (a government agency) which has slipped in to NZ without any public discussion and of course overseas there are already new 4G networks being constructed in countries like Japan.  Where will it all end?

All of these telecommunications structures are changing the face of our communities, towns and cities and constantly increasing the electromagnetic radiation we are exposed to – so that most of us, especially in cities, are exposed to a constant cocktail of WIFI networks, cellular networks and power lines.  As a result more and more people are becoming electromagnetically sensitive.

Sweden compensates 3% of its population whom it assesses are electromagnetic sensitive.

All of this has been allowed to happen without anyone in NZ assessing what cumulative effect all these increased EMR’s may be having on human health – particularly on children’s health.  Or even measuring what is the cumulative EMR we are being exposed to.

Meantime overseas, especially in Europe, more and more evidence is emerging about the chronic long term health effects of cell phones and EMR.  Following the release of a new Bioinitiatives report which confirms that there can be chronic long term effects of exposure to EMR, Europe and many other countries are reviewing their standards to
1. take a much more precautionary approach
2. to put controls on emissions of EMR
3. to provide more protection for communities and individuals

Overseas, one can sense that the tide is turning as more and more evidence of chronic long term effects emerges.
• France is removing cell towers near schools
• Europe is reviewing its standards
• Belgium has just announced moratorium on building any new cell towers until the European standard has been reviewed

Meanwhile, we in NZ are going in the opposite direction – weakening controls and taking an even more permissive approach.

Our government is refusing to review our 1999 EMR standard which is one of the most permissive in world.  This standard is based on the false assumption that EMR can only cause acute effects and not long term chronic effects.

Our government’s approach is to assume that EMR is safe until such time as there conclusive evidence of harm is proven.  It is exactly the opposite of a precautionary approach.

Our exposure limits have been set so high in the New Zealand standard that no matter how much additional wireless radiation is added to the national exposure through erection of thousands of new transmitters they will always be “within the standard”.

So it’s a standard to protect the telco industry, not New Zealanders and our public health and we need to be very clear about that.

Our lax hands off approach is no doubt partly due to the fact that the government appointed committee which oversees EMR – the Interagency committee on health effects of radiation – meets in secret and has representatives of telcos and other industry representatives with vested interests on it, but very few community representatives.

I wonder how many of you saw the Sunday programme the other night – Dr Charles Teo and other doctors stated that there had been a recent, exponential increase in brain tumours which they believed correlated with long term use of cell phones.  They were adamant that prolonged use of cell phones can double your risk of getting a brain tumour.  One expert who disputed this nevertheless conceded that electromagnetic radiation penetrates in to your head and heats up your brain but then argued that the emissions were so low that it was nevertheless safe.

Their concerns mirror the results of a 17 nation, World Health Organisation inter phone study which was set up to study safety of cell towers.  New Zealand is one of the countries included in the study which was supposed to be a huge and conclusive study which would end the debate about whether cell phones were safe.  The study was due to release its results in 2004 but they have been stalling for five years because the results apparently also confirm a link between use of cell phones and increased risk of tumours on the side of the head where cell phone use is prolonged.

And this begs the question– if cell phones which officials have insisted were safe turn out to increase our risk of cancer, what about cell towers, cabinets, WIFI dishes and all the rest?

The fact is that the current New Zealand standard and current guidelines are not designed to be protective of human health.  They do not take in to account chronic cumulative exposure – only short term acute effects.  We urgently need to review our national standard and develop a new one based on the precautionary approach, and which protects human health – not telcos.

So what can you and your community to about it?  Exactly what you are doing here tonight.  Make as much fuss as possible – embarrass telcos and remind them that the communities they are riding roughshod over are comprised of their consumers.

It’s my observation that if a community is organised, telcos will step back and start to consult.  If it isn’t, they will just go straight ahead and erect their towers and equipment.

In the case of Atawhai and Titahi Bay, which organised major protests, the telcos halted the construction of their towers and have come up with new consultation process, involving the establishment of a working group comprised of representatives of council, consumers and telcos to work out what sites are least harmful and least intrusive to a community.

That’s what needs to happen here.  You need to set up a working group to work out where your community would agree to construct cell towers that are least harmful and intrusive to your community.

But we also need to revise our national standard and make it a precautionary one.  The Green Party has been campaigning for this for five years and we will continue to do so

I have also been trying to get an inquiry in to our standard – and the whole issue of people’s right to be consulted on the placement of cell towers and other EMR emitters- so far without success.  We must also set up a genuinely independent committee to oversee EMR – and remove people like Dr Black and others with vested interests from that committee.

As well as updating our radiation exposure standards, we must develop a national database which would enable citizens to identify location of transmitters in their area.

We must also insist on routine compliance testing of every transmitter site in NZ.

And we must reinstate communities right to be notified, to be consulted and to have a say on where EMR emitters are located, and set up working parties comprised of representatives of Councils, the community and telcos, to decide on installation of masts where residential properties are least affected.

Much of the rest of the world has come to recognise that EMR causes or contributes to a range of acute and long term health effects – including debilitating adverse effects of electromagnetic sensitivity – and is progressively tightening up controls to better protect communities. New Zealand must do the same